Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Posts Tagged ‘book review

Book Review: “Finding Our Niche”

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Okeover Arm Provincial Park
Okeover Arm Provincial Park, Lund, BC
my picture on Flickr
First Nations have been gathering oysters here for ages
They are delicious

There is a great deal of bad news around. In fact that is probably always true since conflict, drama, threats and warnings are what sell newspapers, or these days get clicks on links. And actually this review can include links to the author and his ideas, so I can refer you to those rather than rely on quotations from his text.

Right now most of the world is facing a pandemic. And one of the reasons that we are not coping with it well so far is that the people who make the decisions in our society are trying to keep the economy going no matter what impact that has on human mortality. Humans are naturally gregarious. Work is normally arranged around everyone being in the same place and communicating face to face. Yet at the same time the more we gather indoors, the less care we exercise on the distance we keep, the more we share the pleasures of eating, drinking and talking to each other, the more successful the virus becomes: spreading, mutating, infecting. Economy and human health are in conflict.

This has to some extent replaced coverage of the other great threat, not just to humanity but all life on earth. Global warming. In our province (BC) we have produced plans to reduce the use of fossil fuels, but we are actually trying to increase our production of them for export. We know we need the forests to store carbon from the atmosphere yet we are cutting them down faster than ever, especially the old growth forests which store the most carbon. Canada has declared a climate emergency but has just approved three more offshore drilling sites. We bought a pipeline, one that was clearly a future financial liability – otherwise it would not have been looking for a buyer. It is based on the least likely scenario, that more countries will want to buy diluted bitumen, when renewable energy producers like wind and solar are now cheaper than fossil fuels. Saving the planet conflicts with the economy too.

Clearly what we have been doing is not working. Add to that the near collapse of democracy in the country to the south of us, and it is no wonder we are pessimistic. So books that look at better ways of dealing with the place where we live should have a ready market.

The problem is that we have bought into a whole load of ideas which are either outright lies or at least wildly misleading. The Tragedy of the Commons, for instance is based on the misrepresentation of history. The commons were not over exploited by the overall greed of society in general, but rather the greed of the already wealthy and powerful. There were regulatory measures in place, managed by the community, to protect the commons for use by all, but a few had the ability to overturn that for their own benefit. Yes there are some very greedy, dangerous people, but we are not all like that nor do we behave like that whenever we get the chance. Terra Nullius was a lie too. America wasn’t fenced but that did not mean it was not owned by anybody. Just like Australia, or New Zealand, or the South Pacific Islands. There were lots of people there before “us” – Europeans. We didn’t actually discover anything (other than our own ignorance of their existence) and the people there were not savages.

In fact the societies that existed in those places were remarkably successful even if they did not adhere to our current preference for measuring GDP or possession of precious metals as measures of success. Philip Loring is an anthropoligst and ecologist. He is an academic at the University of Guelph, Ontario and this is his first book. It is based around the knowledge that people who have thrived in places for millennia have obviously understood their environment better than the people who have not learned the lessons that the industrial revolution ought to have taught us. We are also still in thrall to people like Thomas Hobbes, who coined the phrase “nasty, brutish and short” for life when it was in a state of nature. And Adam Smith who may hold the record as the most widely misunderstood economist of all time.

The ideas that Loring discusses are common to all indigenous peoples – all of whom have learned over very long periods of time what works in their places to make life better for everyone. We now know, thanks to academic research and archaeological evidence that the places Europeans colonised had been occupied by humans for thousands of years by people who were not just hunter gatherers, but who managed their resources carefully and adapted themselves and the places they occupied to be more productive. Many developed advanced civilisations, and there is also much to be learned in why they collapsed. But the people were still there after these collapses, and their lives were a great deal less stressful.

Indigenous knowledge is inextricable from place. And therefore is not only complex and interwoven with that place but also guarded by those people carefully. Actually the greatest loss of human knowledge might not be the loss of the library at Alexandria but the burning of all but ten of the books written by the ancient Maya. What Loring does is distill some of this knowledge into a remarkably small number of general principles. In fact his chapter headings are all single words. Keystone, Engineers, Pristine, Novel. There is very little of the usual verbosity of American academia. It is much more about storytelling. And he has some great stories. Some familiar – the clam terraces of the Salish Sea – and some new to me. The reasons the Hindus revere cows, for instance. And how life is possible in North Western Mexico even though the Americans have used up most of the water in the Colorado River.

I will also confess that I have a couple of difficulties which are not dealt with in the book. For a start, who gets to be regarded as an aboriginal? Obviously not me. I come from East London, England and my ancestors come from all over the place. Secondly the thing I learned about some of my ancestors is that they were fabulists. Great storytellers too, but the “histories” they told were far from the truth, though as all great myths and legends are, based on true events. So people who rely on oral histories, in my experience, have not been a reliable source – even though I am sure they were trying to pass on wisdom. Then there is the problem of how stories are guarded. There is one story that Loring says “is not mine to tell” – but then he does produce a precis of it.

Here is a story of mine. I was part of an environmental assessment of a proposed development on Vancouver Island. The development was opposed by the local First Nation, who hired a woman of European extraction to assist them in presenting their concerns. At one meeting she started to explain the use that the FN applied to part of the site, at which moment the head of that group objected. “That’s not your story to tell!” he said to her, angily and the meeting promptly broke up. It is difficult enough for me, with my background, to trust oral histories. It is even more difficult, I think, for aboriginal knowledge and wisdom to be passed along to people who need it, if the owners of those stories are not willing to share.

There are also three anecdotes in the book which illustrate the same point. He was trying to do something and someone else seemed to block him but without giving a reason. A bit like a teacher I heard of who told his student “You’ll figure it out” rather than actually explaining what he was talking about in a way that the student could understand.

But even so I recommend this book to you as it is thought provoking and it does carry a message that is hopeful and may help you feel a bit more optimistic. You can read more about the book here, and more about the author here.

Finding Our Niche: Toward a Restorative Human Ecology

by Phil Loring, Arrell Chair in Food, Policy, Society and Associate Professor of Geography at the Department of Geography and Arrell Food Institute, University of Guelph.

Publisher: Fernwood Publishing

ISBN-10: 1773632876

ISBN-13: 978-1773632872

Available from wherever books are sold

Written by Stephen Rees

January 14, 2021 at 4:40 am

Book Review: “Understanding Planned Obsolescence”

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There is something very post modern about this review. I was offered a copy of this new book (out 3 January 2017) to review, but what I got was an ebook hobbled by Digital Rights Management. It expires in a month and I am not allowed to cut and paste any quotations from it. Now I may not know much about copyright but I do understand the concept of “fair use”: which includes quotation!

I am going to cut and paste what I can from  the blurb on netgalley and the publisher’s press release. (see below the line)

The reason that I wanted to read the book was my irritation at getting this tweet


The iPad mini in question is less than two years old. I have determined by reference to the book that I am not alone in this experience, and indeed it appears to be a long established policy of Apple. Indeed within the product cycle, the life of the hardware is prescribed – and there will inevitably come a day, long before the device in question is beyond repair, when its operating system will not get updated any more. There is a case in the book of the iPod whose battery life was designed to be 18 months, and the battery could not be replaced by the user. There is also a documented legal case of an iPod mini designed and sold as an adjunct to exercise which failed when it came into contact with human sweat. Apple’s advertising showed the device attached to human bodies under exertion!

There is nothing new about planned obsolescence.  I read Vance Packard’s The Wastemakers at East Ham Grammar School when I studied A Level Economics (1964-66). Everybody knows about GM’s policy of annual model changes based simply on design as opposed to technical innovation. And the cartel of lightbulb makers who made their products fail earlier so that they could sell more of them. My Dad told me about British carmaker Armstrong Siddeley that went bust because their cars were built to last – and no-one ever bought another one having no need since the first one they got was so well made and reliable. I fully expect my 2007 Toyota Yaris to see me out – unless there is a sea change at the strata council and I could install a charger for an electric car. Or Modo relents and puts a shared car in our neighbourhood.

If you are a student then you will be comfortable reading this book. It is remarkably short – I read it cover to cover in two hours or so – and is well annotated and referenced. It does acknowledge Brexit – which will probably remove British consumers from all the EU protection offered to consumers, which is remarkably advanced compared to North America. But was obviously written pre Trump. With leaders like Trudeau and Clark we cannot expect anything other than continuing adherence to the best interests of their funders. And just as the fossil fuel industries will ignore the carbon bubble for as long as possible, we can confidently expect the 0.01% and the corporations they control to continue to ignore both the pile up of garbage and pollution and the growing shortage of critical raw materials (like rare earths) as long as their profits increase and remain largely untaxed. So acquiring this book if you are an activist and wishing to bring about some change is likely to disappointing.

But if you are really in need of an education in the theory of planned obsolescence this might be worth forty quid to you (CAN$66.45 at the time of writing). But as far as prescriptions go, there’s not much. The certainty that the “current hegemonic paradigm will not allow humans to remain on this planet much longer” – and therefore the need to “walk in search of new patterns, new models, new meanings to then build new paths, new paradigms”.

And that is about it.



Written by Stephen Rees

December 19, 2016 at 3:38 pm

Book Review: Straphanger by Taras Grescoe

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I was pleased to get an invitation to read a review copy of Straphanger by Taras Grescoe. I was even more pleased when I got it  straightaway as a download. The download I get, of course, has a limited life – but longer than the average library loan. On the other hand it does not permit me to copy and paste excerpts into a review. This is annoying because that is actually covered by the “fair use” exception in copyright law – but apparently Adobe Digital Editions do not allow for that. Not surprising really given the foofooraw over DRM in general. On the other hand the book has already been reviewed in the mainstream media (here for example is the Globe and Mail’s take on it). More importantly big chunks of it – far more than would ever get into any review – are currently getting on line in Spacing magazine’s various web presences. This does enable one to cut and paste – but much more importantly it means you can read big chunks of it too. You do subscribe to Spacing Vancouver don’t you? For example today’s extract is all about Copenhagen.

But I think, given this blog’s orientation, and the fact that this was the first bit I really paid attention to, you will want to look at what he has to say about Vancouver. It is remarkably upbeat and positive: far more than this blog has been overall – or any of us are feeling right now, thanks to the massive cut that the Mayors have delivered in the ongoing fight with the province over funding. But there are things here that made me react in a much less positive way. For instance:

The Canada Line, completed for the 2010 Winter Olympics, whisks passengers in Korean made electric trains at 50 miles an hour toward the West End. As the driverless light-rail train crosses the Fraser River, I marvel at how thickets of office and condo towers, each cluster corresponding to a SkyTrain station, have cropped up at intervals of about a mile and a half, where once there was only low-rise suburbia.

No you didn’t. What you see as you leave the airport and before you plunge into the tunnel after Marine Drive station looks nothing like that. I mean, yes Taras, you might marvel at that from the distance of your Montreal home based on what you have been told, read and even seen on some visits. But not only does it not look like that as you cross the Fraser River, much of Vancouver does not look like that. There are no “thickets of office towers” apart from around Burrard Station – and the twin towers of Metrotown where Translink is currently located (where there were supposed to be more, but they have not been built). And you will certainly not see anything like that along the Canada Line except the condos at Lansdowne and Brighouse. There’s also a few high rise buildings near Bridgeport but those are hotels and they are there because of the airport and proximity to the freeway exit. Now there will be a massive high rise at Marine Drive – but it isn’t there now to marvel at. What most of us notice is the lack of development at Broadway and Commercial – where two SkyTrain lines meet and Safeway’s car park is the most noticeable feature – one that Brent Toderian points out to visitors as an example. Nothing happened at 29th Avenue or  Nanaimo either. Joyce/Collingwood is the Vancouver exception.

Burnaby and New Westminster did get Skytrain stations, and have also concentrated development at one or two stations. (There is a long piece in the Straight on New Westminster’s transit oriented development.) Burnaby continued with dispersed office parks and low density commercial sprawl both unrelated to transit. Surrey is now making the best of the Surrey City Centre – but for much of the intervening period (between the Scott Road extension opening and a couple of years ago) also pursued sprawl at highway intersections. In that case actually with the enthusiastic support of the province, which used highway land sales to developers to help pay for intersection “improvements”.

What Translink’s recent release of its frequent transit map shows is that most of Metro Vancouver is just like most of the rest of North America. Yes we may be doing a bit better than Portland (the chapter in the book is a head to head comparison) but that is not saying much.

Part of the problem is that we have started believing our own spin. For instance, Gordon Price tells him

“The amazing thing is that, even today, highways don’t go through any part of the City of Vancouver,” pointed out Price. “They just stop as soon as they reach the city limits.”

That is just not true. Highway #1 is a freeway, and it runs through the City of Vancouver’s North East Corner. From the Second Narrows Bridge to Boundary Road, through the Cassiar Connector tunnel, that is City of Vancouver. And the freeway expansion is going to dump lots of traffic into Vancouver’s east side.

Vancouver, like Portland, opted to use federal highway money for public transport

Eh? What federal highway money? There was a small one off federal contribution to the original Skytrain. A grovelling provincial government even stuck Canada word marks on the trains as part of its campaign to get more federal contribution to the Canada Line – so named to attract the same funds. But Canada does not have a federal transit program – and its highway money comes as specific grants for favoured projects in critical ridings too. I would also balk at labelling the 99 B-Line “Bus Rapid Transit” as he does.

Vancouver’s greatest strength was the concentration of vision allowed by true regional planning. The Livable Region Strategic Plan, adopted in 1996 as a framework for making regional land use and transportation decisions, is now the game plan for the entire region.

Well that might have been true once, I must say that I disagree. The expansion of Highway #1 and the rejection of even the fig leaf of a bus across the new Port Mann Bridge means that the LRSP no longer applies. And anyway, even when he was talking to Chris de Marco at Metro, there was a new Regional Growth Strategy that has replaced the LRSP. Some of the problem is that events have moved between him writing and the book appearing. Toderian and Shiffer had both gone. But the writing was already clearly on the wall, once the province decided not just to deal with the bottle neck of the Port Mann Bridge but to widen the entire freeway through the region from Boundary Road to the eastern limit of Langley Township. The Livable Region Coalition was formed to fight that, and lost. Long before he started his researches for this volume.

There is, I am sad to report, no chapter on London. (UPDATE I can now report, after a tweet & email exchange with the author, that he offered one in his outline but the publisher was not interested.) It does get mentioned here and there – and no, I have not yet read the entire book. But given that London was the place that first built an underground railway – The Metropolitan Railway – and that most cities subsequently called their systems “Metro” as a result of that – does seem to me to be significant. What is missing is an appreciation of the role of the suburban railway. In London, the mainlines run north and west from the capital, and the Underground network developed in those sectors since the London and Northwestern and Great Western railways were much less interest in short haul commuters than the more profitable long distance “Inter City” market. To the south and east, suburban development also proceeded at the same pace but was driven by the Southern and Great Eastern railways, who had much less long distance traffic. The GE in fact was forced to run commuter trains by legislation. In order to build its City terminus at Liverpool Street it had to pull down a densely populated urban area called The Jago. If those people were to be relocated to the suburbs they had to be given fares they could afford. “Workmen’s fares” were legislated to allow the low paid manual workers on whom the wealth of the city depended to get to and from work every day, to their – much nicer, new homes in places like Walthamstow. The London County Council built huge housing estates – and operated frequent electric tram services to them. But the huge growth of London prior to the first world war was due to the efforts of what became the Southern Railway and its electric trains to places like Surbiton and Dulwich, Staines and Gravesend.

This also seems to have been ignored in the chapter on New York. That is entitled  “The Subway that Time Forgot”. But he forgets that the subway was not the only thing going on. The growth of midtown Manhattan as an employment centre that he ascribes to the subway seems to me to miss the point. Grand Central and Penn Stations were not just the terminals of the transcontinental and the Chattanooga choo-choo. They were the hubs of extensive long distance commuter networks – and still are, come to that. That made it possible for people to commute to their offices from Chatham New Jersey or New Rochelle New York.  The huge growth of the north east megalopolis that stretches from Boston to Washington began when railways offered regular fast and frequent services that people could use for a daily commute. And the farmland and small towns quickly disappeared – and all this started and was clearly evident long before the arrival of the car and Robert Moses. Though I do think he gets that right: Moses refusal to allow railway tracks on “his” bridges was indeed perverse. The Williamsburg Bridge between Manhattan and Brooklyn carries the subway too.

Williamsburg Bridge

Williamsburg Bridge - my picture on flickr

The lack of track on more modern bridges is indeed bizarre. Can you imagine Sidney Harbour bridge without trains? Well yes you can, since our province has been committing the same sin. The railway bridge at New Westminster used to carry cars, and then the parallel Sidney Harbour style Patullo went up and was – as usual – built without consideration for future needs. And we seem likely to repeat the same mistake.

But to get back to Taras Grescoe, by concentrating on the – admittedly gripping tale – subway, he doesn’t even mention the interurbans. In our current love affair with the streetcar (the relatively slow, town centre transit) we seem to have forgotten that there was once a network of fast electric trains. The Downtown Heritage Railway uses two of the cars from that system. They went out to Steveston, but the lines also went all the way to Chilliwack – and the route through Burnaby is followed by the Expo line. Such systems criss-crossed North America. In his novel “Ragtime”, E L Doctorow has his protagonists escape attention by travelling from Chicago to New York by a series of interurbans, thus avoiding the surveillance of the main line stations by the police. Los Angeles “seventeen suburbs in search of a city” grew up because of the Big Red Cars of the Pacific Electric – and that story is told in Straphanger – and it is acknowledged as an interurban, of course. But he quickly falls back to calling them streetcars, and relies on Roger Rabbit and the great City Lines conspiracy. The point being that the interurban may have been slow when forced to share streetspace, but was very fast indeed when on its own right of way out in the country. The great benefit from the users point of view was that there was no need to transfer from the streetcar to the faster mode – in town they shared the same tracks. But because they were built just before the automobiles really got going, and were lumbered not only with legislated fares but also the costs of road maintenance, the conspiracy was really not necessary, although it was indeed real. I would like to quote more but this chapter is not one that Spacing is allowed to excerpt.

So of course I am going to recommend you read not just Spacing’s excerpts, but the whole book. It is indeed highly readable and does look well beyond North America. I was really impressed with the Paris chapter where the RER and the new interurban system both get covered well.  It does get to grips with how cities urban form is shaped by and depends upon its transportation system. Of course there are things we will find to argue about, but that is not a reason to avoid it. Quite the contrary. It is indeed highly stimulating. For as long as it lasts on my hard drive I am going to dipping into it and, should time permit, may well return to it. It is not an academic treatise but it does have both an index (another weakness of digital editions is the need to use the search function but from the front through each mention) and an extensive list of sources. Not that this blog is on that, of course.

By the way WordPress wants to mark the fact that this post is the 1900th since I started.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 25, 2012 at 2:16 pm